Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#601 - The POPs Treaty, 03-Jun-1998

An important shift is taking place in the environmental movement in the
United States and, indeed, around the world.

As a result of pressure by environmental activists, the governments of
more than 150 countries will meet in Montreal, Canada June 29 to form
an Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee to begin negotiating a
binding global treaty to reduce and/or eliminate 12 toxic chemicals
world-wide, including dioxins. Dioxins are supremely toxic by-products
of many industrial processes, especially incineration. (See REHW #390,
#391, #414.)

The new Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee will also develop
criteria for adding new chemicals to the list of those to be reduced
and/or eliminated. The new global treaty has the potential to change
the way the chemical industry is allowed to conduct its business world-
wide.

This is a critical time for grass-roots activists to become involved in
watchdogging the treaty negotiations and to come to Montreal June 27-
29, to bear witness and to shine a powerful light on this important
international forum. For more information, contact Karen Perry of
Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C.: (202) 898-
0150 (kperry@psr.org) or Monica Rohde, Center for Health, Environment
and Justice (formerly CCHW): (703) 237-2249 (mrohde@essential.org); or
Morag Simpson, Greenpeace Canada: (416) 597-8408
(morag.simpson@dialb.greenpeace.org.)

At a minimum, one crucial question could be decided by public pressure
generated by activists: will the new treaty "reduce" or will
it "eliminate" these chemicals? If the treaty calls for
the "elimination" of these chemicals, the chemical industry will never
be quite the same again. It would represent a triumph of the
precautionary principle over the failed approach called "regulation"
for protecting public health from industrial poisons. (See REHW #586.)

After a decade of work, dioxin activists --who have been considered "on
the fringe" by some mainstream environmental groups in the U.S. --find
themselves at the center of ground-breaking international action. As
Jack Weinberg of Greenpeace once said, the power of national
governments seems to be shrinking (in relation to chemical
corporations), so the environmental movement is shifting from "think
globally, act locally" to "act locally, act globally." International
arenas are offering new opportunities to curb the power of corporations.

The chemicals to be reduced and/or eliminated by the new treaty are
known as "POPs" --persistent organic pollutants. The initial list of
POPs to be considered by governments negotiating the new treaty
includes a dozen chemicals that can be divided into three groups:

(1) PESTICIDES (DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin, Chlordane, Heptachlor,
Mirex, and Toxaphene);

(2) INDUSTRIAL CHEMICALS (polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] and
hexachlorobenzene [HCB]);

(3) UNWANTED CHEMICAL BY-PRODUCTS OF VARIOUS INDUSTRIAL PROCESSES,
ESPECIALLY INCINERATION (dioxins and furans).

POPs are carbon-based (and mostly chlorine-based) compounds and
mixtures with common characteristics. As a class, POPs create problems
that can only be solved on a global scale.

** POPs are persistent in the environment. They resist being broken
down by sunlight, chemical and/or biological processes.

** Because many POPs are semi-volatile (i.e. they vaporize at warmer
temperatures and condense as the air gets cooler), they can travel long
distances on air currents before returning to the earth. POPs travel
like grasshoppers, rising into the air, settling back to earth, rising
again, moving on air currents. By this means, POPs are "distilled" and
they tend to move from warmer climates to colder climates. POPs can
also be transported by ocean currents and through the migration of
species that carry them in their bodies. Thus the Nordic countries,
Canada, Alaska and other near-Arctic territories are significantly
contaminated with hormone-disrupting POPs even though the sources of
such chemicals lie thousands of miles to the south.[2]

** Because POPs are generally fat soluble, they concentrate as they
move up the food chain, magnifying thousands of times as they move into
species at the top of the food chain --big fish, large birds, bears,
wolves, and humans, for example.

** POPs have been shown to cause a number of adverse health affects in
both humans and animals, including cancers, immune system disorders,
and serious reproductive maladies.[3] For example, in April the U.S.
government issued a series of new studies linking dioxin to human
cancers and to damage to the human immune system.[4] And just this week
Norwegian researchers reported finding four hermaphroditic polar bears,
meaning bears born with both male and female sex organs, on the arctic
Svalbard islands. According to the TIMES OF LONDON, the bears' sexual
deformities are thought to result from exposure to PCBs.[5]

** Humans living in the Arctic, particularly Inuit people whose
traditional diet includes marine mammals and fish, have some of the
highest body burdens of POPs in the world, even though they live
thousands of miles from any important industrial sources.[6] Continuous
exposure to such high levels of POPs has raised concerns about the
physical, sociocultural and economic well-being of Aboriginal
Northerners[2] --raising fundamental questions of environmental justice
on an international scale.

The POPs treaty negotiations, which will take about five meetings to
complete, are expected to end by 2000, and will be held in different
locations around the world. After the negotiations end, the new treaty
will need to be ratified by each country. At that point the U.S. and
other governments will come under pressure to bring domestic laws and
practices into line with the provisions of the new agreement, though
action on many POPs is certain to begin even before legally binding
mandates go into effect.

There is some recognition that each of the three broad classes of POPs
(pesticides, industrial chemicals and toxic by-products) will require a
unique strategic approach.

When the United Nations Environment Programme decided to initiate the
POPs negotiations, it made clear that different actions will be needed
for different classes of POPs, with the following language:

** "For the listed POP pesticides, measures should be taken to rapidly
phase out remaining production and subsequent remaining use as
alternatives are made available for the small number of remaining
recognized uses."[7]

** "For the listed POP industrial chemicals there is need to phase out,
over time, PCBs and HCB [hexachlorobenzene] on a global scale and, in
the transition to complete elimination of use, there is need for
managing remaining use, storage and disposal."[7]

** "For POPs that are generated as unwanted by-products [e.g. dioxins
and furans], currently available measures that can achieve a realistic
and meaningful level of release reduction and/or source elimination
should be pursued expeditiously, and this should be done by actions
that are feasible and practical and additional measures should be
explored and implemented."[7]

** "Realistic action should be taken to destroy obsolete stocks of the
listed POPs and remediate environmental reservoirs."[7]

At this stage the U.S. government sees the POPs treaty as a process
that will require few changes in existing environmental laws. "The
United States and many other countries have already taken substantial
action to address risks associated with the pollutants identified for
action in international bodies," the State Department says.[8] Yet U.S.
laws currently put much faith in risk assessment and the management and
control of POPs and their sources, particularly dioxins. This is
contrary to the goal of zero discharge and elimination.

A coalition of activists --called the International POPs Elimination
Network, or IPEN --has formed to monitor the development of the POPs
treaty. IPEN's provisional platform says that, for any chemical listed
as a POP, "the assumption is that a chemical has no acceptable emission
limit value; no acceptable daily intake, etc. (except as needed on an
interim basis with clear phase-out deadlines)... Once a substance is
listed as a POP, it is inappropriate to accept its continued generation
and release in perpetuity. We reject the claim that emissions and
releases of POPs can be effectively and safely managed and controlled
forever."[9]

If "elimination" of chemicals such as dioxin becomes the treaty goal --
i.e., zero discharge --then the U.S. government will have to change its
regulatory approach, since current regulations define "acceptable"
emissions limits. Further, new regulations would have to be enacted to
address sources of POPs like dioxin --such as building fires involving
PVC [polyvinyl chloride], or backyard barrel burning --which EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] has identified but not yet regulated.
[10]

At this early stage, no one is opposed to the negotiations. Even The
International Council of Chemical Associations (the chemical industry's
global representative) supports the negotiations, at least publicly.
They recognize that POPs pose problems that can no longer be ignored
and so, instead of opposing the treaty, they have adopted
a "constructive" stance, but will work vigorously to restrict the
treaty's provisions to ones with only minimal impact on the economic
interests of transnational chemical corporations.

With few exceptions, there is very little economic interest in
continued deliberate production of the original 12 POPs. Last year, for
example, Velsicol Chemical Co., under pressure from the U.S. government
(and probably from some other chemical manufacturers) announced it
would stop producing heptachlor and chlordane, the last two chemicals
on the initial POPs list to be deliberately manufactured in the U.S.
[11]

The negotiation of a strong POPs treaty will require vigilant oversight
from the global environmental and public health communities.

The question of whether the POPs treaty will aim to "reduce"
or "eliminate" dioxins, for instance, is one of several crucial issues
at stake. If the aim is to merely "reduce" dioxins, then governments
(such as the U.S.) will only have to point to recently-enacted
regulations on some major sources such as medical waste incinerators,
garbage incinerators and pulp and paper mills. If this happens, an
opportunity to embed the precautionary principle deeper into law will
have been lost.

--by Charlie Cray[1]

=====

[1] Charlie Cray is with the Greenpeace U.S. Toxics Campaign, 417 S.
Dearborn, Suite 420, Chicago, IL 60605; Tel.: (312) 554-1027; Fax:
(312) 554-1224; E-mail Charlie.Cray@dialb.greenpeace.org

[2] Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), ARCTIC POLLUTION
ISSUES: A STATE OF THE ARCTIC ENVIRONMENT REPORT, Oslo, 1997; see also
J. Jensen, and others, editors, "Canadian Arctic Contaminants
Assessment Report," Canadian Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development, Ottawa, 1997.

[3] See, for example, DEATH IN SMALL DOSES: THE EFFECTS OF
ORGANOCHLORINES ON AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS, 1992 and BODY OF EVIDENCE: THE
EFFECTS OF CHLORINE ON HUMAN HEALTH, May 1995, both available from
Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 176, 1016 DW, Amsterdam,
Netherlands. Telephone 31 20 523 6222.

[4] Heiko Becher and Dieter Flesch-Janys, editors, "Dioxins and Furans:
Epidemiologic Assessment of Cancer Risks and Other Human Health
Effects," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 106 Supplement 2
(April 1998), pgs. 621-775.

[5] Nick Nutall, "Pollutants Blamed for Dual-Sex Polar Bears," TIMES OF
LONDON June 1, 1998, page unknown. Available in File 710 on the Dialog
database; see www.dialog.com.

[6] John J. Ryan et al., "Inuit Greenland Exposure to Dioxin-Like
Compounds," ORGANOHALOGEN COMPOUNDS, Vol. 30 (1996), pp 247-249.

[7] Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme,
Draft decision approved by the Committee of the Whole, February 4,
1997. [Document UNEP/GC.[19]/L.61]

[8] FEDERAL REGISTER Vol. 63, No. 92 (May 13, 1998), pgs. 26668-26670.
The U.S. government's negotiating team will be represented by an
interagency working group chaired by the State Department. The State
Department hosted a public meeting June 3, 1998, to "outline issues
likely to arise in the context of the negotiations" at Montreal and
beyond. For more information, contact Mr. Trigg Talley, U.S. Department
of State (202)-647-5808 for more information.

[9] International POPs Elimination Network provisional platform can be
found at www.psr.org. Groups are urged to join IPEN and sign on to the
provisional platform.

[10] For example, see Paul M. Lemieux, EVALUATION OF EMISSIONS FROM THE
OPEN BURNING OF HOUSEHOLD WASTE IN BARRELS. VOLUME 1. TECHNICAL REPORT
[EPA-600/R-97-134a], U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of
Research and Development, Washington, D.C. , November 1997.

[11] "Velsicol to Cease Production of Chlordane and Heptachlor,"
Velsicol Chemical Company, News Release May, 15, 1997.

Descriptor terms: treaties; pops; velsicol; charlie cray;
intergovernmental negotiation committee; precautionary principle; jack
weinberg; ddt; aldrin; dieldrin; endrin; chlordane; heptachlor; mirex;
toxaphene; pcbs; hexachlorobenzene; dioxins; furans; reproductive
disorders; hermaphroditism; polar bears; norway; inuit; native people;
unep; united nations environment programme; pesticides; ipen;
international pops elimination network; psr; physicians for social
responsibility; international council of chemical associations;
velsicol; greenpeace;